Is Bolsonarism in crisis? Effects of the Pandemic on the President’s Popularity

/ Online Transmission - Zoom

Quantitative polling conducted in the most poverty-stricken regions of the Brazilian countryside, mainly in the Northeast, revealed that President Jair Bolsonaro’s popularity today depends on transforming the provisional emergency financial aid granted during the pandemic into permanent income, which represents a major fiscal challenge for the government, post-pandemic. 

Qualitative polling showed that pandemic management is today Bolsonaro’s weakness—due to the perception that he did not do everything he could to reduce the impact of COVID-19 and lacked empathy for the tens of thousands of dead and their families. However, it can become a strength, as the poorest population sees social isolation as a privilege of the richest, and the president has always been in favor of maintaining economic activities, even against the advice of doctors, sanitarians, and scientists.

These were the main conclusions of the webinar that brought together two opinion poll experts: sociologist Esther Solano, who has been conducting qualitative research among Bolsonaro voters, and economist Maurício Moura, founder and president of IDEIA Big Data, the first analyst to predict Bolsonaro’s victory in 2018.

“Eight out of ten people polled in Brazil’s countryside think that emergency aid is permanent and is already part of their future income. In the interior of the North and Northeast regions, the 600 BRL stimulus checks (almost three times the amount of the Bolsa Família), resulted in a shock of income and unexpected consumption. The result is that about one-third of Bolsonaro’s current approval rating comes from the D and E classes of these regions, even though the aid was originally an initiative of Brazil’s National Congress and not the federal government,” explained economist Maurício Moura, a researcher at George Washington University. The 600 BRL stimulus checks for the low-income population was approved by representatives and senators at the end of March 2020; the government had proposed a monthly amount of 200 BRL.

“The life versus economy dichotomy resonated with the poorest constituency, who see Bolsonaro as the president who let people go to work. Some think that the emergency aid was Bolsonaro’s doing, others know that the initiative came from Congress. Nonetheless, in the end, it is the government that distributes the stimulus checks and the positive impact on their lives was reflected in an increase in presidential popularity,” said sociologist Esther Solano Gallego, a Spanish citizen living in Brazil and professor at the Federal University of São Paulo.

       Decision to spend

Moura and Solano agreed that Bolsonaro has already decided to spend country funds to maintain this extra income, as his future popularity depends on it. “He either spends it or goes down in the polls. The idea of Renda Brasil – the proposal being studied that will transform several government social programs into one monthly income with a higher amount than Bolsa Família (Brazil’s social welfare program) – became a central post-pandemic topic,” said Moura. “Bolsonaro has already decided to allocate resources to the poorest, who are terrified of unemployment and hunger. His visit to the Northeast at the end of July showed this clearly,” agreed Solano.

Brazil, however, is facing a fiscal crisis aggravated by the pandemic, and making this permanent income feasible will require Minister Paulo Guedes’ economic team to change directions. “Does Guedes lose ground in the government? Perhaps, but Bolsonaro has understood that this is a crucial decision for his political future. Former President Lula also bet on Bolsa Família to recover from the wear and tear caused by the Mensalão scandal,” said the economist. 

“With Sérgio Moro resigning, Brazil’s former Minister of Justice, Bolsonaro lost the Operation Car Wash supporters (lava jatistas), who represented a significant portion of the support from the middle-class. He may also lose Paulo Guedes’ supporters (guedistas), but this can be offset by more support from the poorest strata, which has already begun to happen,” explained the sociologist.

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       Highs and lows

During his opening speech, Moura gave a detailed account of the evolution of the president’s popularity, from his inauguration in January 2019 until the beginning of the pandemic. “Despite the ups and downs of that period, this past March he had between 30 and 40 percentage points of excellent and good rankings, which is significant. The pandemic has changed everything. Unlike most of the heads of state in Europe, Asia, Oceania, and even South America, Bolsonaro gained no popularity during the pandemic, on the contrary, he lost it. Moro’s resignation in April contributed to this trend and, at the turn of May to June, he had a support rating of around 25%. Since then, there has been around a 30% to 35% recovery because of the stimulus checks,” he said.

       ‘The president makes mistakes, but he is sincere’

According to Solano, qualitative polls with the Bolsonaro electorate show that people are growing tired of the aggressive behavior and lack of presidential decorum. “More virulent speeches are tolerable on the campaign trail, but during the administration, the perception is that he should respect the rituals of the position. Two health ministers resigning within a few weeks reinforced the idea that Bolsonaro does not tolerate those who contradict him,” he said. 

Reports of corruption or criticism of the behavior of the president’s three sons – who are also politicians – have damaged Bolsonaro’s image, who is seen as an excessive “protector of insolent and irresponsible men-children.” However, the president has an authentic quality, especially to the poorest population. “No matter how erroneous and sometimes childish or out of control, his authenticity remains a stronghold for those who have a positive opinion of him. Sincerity has a strong symbolic power and is something difficult to dismantle,” explained Solano.

Still, according to the researcher, even among those who regretted having voted for Bolsonaro in 2018, there is a strong feeling of political disinterest, and this “political orphanhood” can lead them to vote for the president again in 2022 “because there will not be other alternatives.”

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       Fundamentals of Bolsonarism

According to Solano, some fundamentals of Bolsonarism tend to hold firm until the next presidential election, when the president will seek re-election. They are: the anti-systemic vote (denial of politics, seen as corrupt); the defense of moral and religious values, especially strong among evangelicals (“I do not always agree with Bolsonaro, but he is a man of faith and will defend the institution of family”), and the militarization of the State power (“democracy can result in chaos instead of order, security, and discipline”).

“Bolsonaro was successful in bringing behavioral and moral issues into the political center and family conversations, especially those who are adept to the Pentecostals and the Neo-charismatic movements (Neo-pentecostals). He managed to demonize Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT, in Portuguese) as being anti-family, favorable to the early sexualization of children and the defender of identity and gender issues, such as LGBT rights. Although Bolsonaro disappointed evangelical women by not defending the value of life during the pandemic, he is still closer to this religious universe than the left,” reported the sociologist.

According to Solano, this population group is against violence against women and in favor of gender equality in the workplace, but is also against feminism, seen as elitist (“an intellectual thing”). He defends respect for homosexuals but fears that the LGBT agenda will destroy the family. “Identity and gender issues are brutally rejected, and the left was wrong in not taking conservative moral issues seriously. If the left wants to change that, they will have to be hands-on,” she said.

“It is no longer possible to win an election in Brazil without talking to evangelicals, whose numbers are growing, especially in the impoverished areas of large cities, and are becoming more politically active,” agreed Maurício Moura.

If the prospects of the Workers’ Party in 2022 are complicated, those of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB, in Portuguese) are also unstable. “The PSDB will have a hard time detaching itself from what is seen as a broken political system. São Paulo’s governor, João Doria (determined to be the party’s presidential candidate), became better known in the rest of the country during the pandemic and is seen as an educated politician who is also well-spoken. But he is very much identified with the state of São Paulo, and that is everything that Brazil wants no part of,” said the researcher. Moura pointed out that Bolsonaro has no party since he left the Social Liberal Party (PSL, in Portuguese): “If the President can govern without a party, what is the point of political parties? This is the message he is sending.”

        The economy will be the dominant topic of the presidential election 

Both speakers believe the economy will be the most relevant topic in the 2022 presidential campaign. “If Brazilians were outraged by corruption in 2018, in 2022 they will be desperate over unemployment and lack of income. Bolsonaro may even place part of the blame on governors and mayors, but he will have to pick up the pieces of the economic recession caused by the pandemic and see what he can do going forward,” said Moura. “Fear and despair are the fundamental feelings that will define the outcome of the 2022 election,” agreed Solano. 

When asked what the ideal candidate profile would be to win two years from now, both said there was room for a candidate who is critical of both the Workers’ Party (PT) and Bolsonaro. “Before the pandemic, Bolsonaro was the favorite, and now, although not as favorite, he still has a chance. A candidate who is both anti-Bolsonaro (anti-bolsonarista) and anti-Workers’ Party (antipetista) can be well-received,” said Moura.

“A third route between PT and Bolsonaro can be a disruptive element, as people want economic stability and political moderation. A more liberal agenda with social sensitivity and protection for the poorest could be successful. Another important aspect is defending family and traditional values,” concluded Solano.

Otávio Dias is a journalist specializing in politics and international affairs. A former correspondent for Folha in London and editor of the website, he is currently the content editor at Fundação FHC.    

Portuguese to English translation by Melissa Harkin & Todd Harkin (Harkin Translations)

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